Girls and math: at the root of the problem

Faced with the dropout of girls in mathematics, associations are worried about the future. But why? Fear of failure, stereotype threat, Pygmalion effect… This deficiency can be caused by ideas received during education.

For as long as she can remember, 17-year-old Amandine* has always loved math. Juggling numbers, breaking theorems… A few years ago, this teenager was one of the rare girls who sat in the front row of math classes at Yvetot college in Normandy. When he returned to the Second in 2021, it was only natural that he chose to focus on this subject by choice. special mathematics. As part of Jean-Michel Blanker’s reform launched in 2019, this option appears to be a great replacement for the Bac S, reducing maths hours on a general basis and prioritizing the subject as a major.

“When I took special mathematics first, the level really went up. I didn’t understand anything anymore, explains someone who has to pass the bachelor’s, literary studies next July. I dropped to an average of 14/20 under the impression that I no longer had the level. With a rather shy and withdrawn personality, Amandine remembers sinking into her seat as the year went by. So when he had to decide what to do for his final year in September, he decided to stop, replacing his enhanced major with a simple option. complementary mathematics, consists of fewer hours per week and no exams. “It was a good compromise for me, because I love math, but I didn’t get that subject in my bachelor’s,” continues the young woman.

Blue brain, pink brain?

Like Amandine, many of them left the sector special mathematics In high school since Blanquer’s reform, he’d rather give up than fail. “What’s happening is we’re cutting hours of maths in general education and saying you have to take a special maths option called ‘expert maths’ that’s twice as high to continue.” It invokes the imagination that girls can’t do it,” replaces Clémence Perronnet, sociologist and author of the book. Mathematical convexity does not exist. Thus, according to the Ministry of National Education, in 2020 there were still 44% to choose this option at the terminal, and 24% the following year (with a new bachelor). A significant fall, it questions their capabilities rather than the reasons for this lack of confidence in them.

“The idea of ​​gender determinism has been denied since the discovery of brain plasticity”

Catherine Vidal

Especially for the book’s author and neuroscientist Catherine Vidal Do girls have brains for math? no neurological difference between girls and boys could account for the latter’s deficit in mathematics. “Every brain is different, the scientist assures. After the discovery of brain plasticity, the idea of ​​strict determinism was denied. That is, our brain grows or shrinks depending on our experiences and learning,” he continues. So, when it comes to mathematics, Catherine Vidal guarantees that from a neurological point of view, there are no differences between the sexes between the ages of 3 months and 4 years, understand “the age when children are not yet influenced by any gender stereotypes.” For her, as for her colleagues, understanding the escape of girls from these areas requires first of all a return to the beginnings of education, where the first forms of education took place.

“I think you are”

Clémence Perronnet likes to compare learning social roles to walking. “Babies learn to stand up in less than a year. Make sure they learn what it’s like to be a man or a woman in society as soon as possible,” he said. The author Mathematical convexity does not exist He cites the old doctrine that the world operates in pairs of opposites: male/female, hot/cold, emotional/rational. “In this classification, girls put themselves on the side of emotions, empathy, communication, and men on the side of reason, coldness and science.” A mental construct related to cultural norms was anchored in our unconscious in spite of ourselves, which would affect our behavior and thus the children’s behavior.

Doctors Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson called it the Pygmalion effect in their book. The Pygmalion Effect: I think you are. “This is because we think that girls have an easier time expressing themselves, we will talk to them more and they will do it more,” explains Clémence Perronnet. Later, they will think they are “better” in these areas and will “naturally” enter into related trades. care – care and health. Conversely, “more bubbly” boys will play team sports like soccer or basketball, which will allow them to develop certain abilities, such as spatial positioning. “Sports activities serve as practice for subjects such as geometry and show that it is natural.”

A 2018 study called What do we learn from CP-CE1 assessments?, went in the same direction and revealed that there was “no difference between girls and boys at the beginning of PGD” in mathematics. But this few months of study was enough “for an advantage to appear in favor of the boys and to grow during the year.” Sebastien Godot (7th), a teacher at an elementary school in Paris, agrees. He went through the junior section, then CP, now teaches classes CM1. “Before CP, all children are at the same level. Math is taught through games that scan pictures and colors. On the other hand, it is true that there are gaps in CE2 and CM1 because the confrontation with team games will increase the competitive spirit among the boys,” he adds, noting, however, that he sees no real “effect on the result”. “

“At a time when preadolescence is a time of intense self-questioning, girls who love math will find they are underrepresented.”

Clemens Perronnet

Thus, for Clémence Perronnet, the real difference between girls and mathematics would occur in college. “At a time when preadolescence is a time of intense self-questioning, girls who love math will find they are underrepresented,” she analyzes. From illustrations of mathematicians in textbooks to television shows, e.g This is not rocket science, starring two men, Jamy Gourmaud and Frédéric Courant. “It’s all a matter of accumulation, the sociologist restarts. At some point, the contrast between girls and mathematics becomes very strong.”

Of course, female figures are always worn by the general public, as with Marie Curie or Sophie Germain. But what is it really worth for teenage girls? “Marie Curie is a woman whose journey is extraordinary. Very unusual”, laments Isabelle Regner, professor of social psychology at the University of Aix Marseille. And to add: “First of all, he is very dead. Women need live and plural models to direct themselves to science.” Thus, several associations still advocate the Scully effect, named after the character Dana Scully in the 1993 X-Files series. Women will go to scientific work in the same year. But while popular culture is still important in persuading the younger generation, female heroes in these fields are still lacking.

In the video, eleven women who left their mark on the history of science

Stereotype threat

Thus, Clémence Perronnet dares to speak of a “decrease in self-confidence” when it comes to girls who encounter mathematics. This conditioning was also observed in a 2007 experiment conducted by Isabelle Regner and Pascal Huguet, research director of the CNRS. Known as “stereotype threat,” this involved training two groups of both sexes at the Rey-Osterriet complex. Students should memorize and repeat it. The experimenter who faced the first group introduced himself as a geometry teacher. In the second, he was an art teacher. Isabelle Régner analysed: “At the end of this test, we observed that the girls had a clear superior performance for the drawing test, while the vast majority failed in geometry”. And to argue: “The moment you become the target of a negative stereotype, the brain panics and activates areas related to stress and anxiety. This will create intrusive thoughts and fear of failure, unconsciously interfering with performance.

But then, how can we explain that those who cross the border of high school often achieve excellent results in higher education? Marie, the 25-year-old engineer responsible for the simulation experiment, was one of the best in her class in 2017 when she studied at Isen (a Grandes Ecoles d’ingénieurs located in several cities, including Marseille and Lille). is an integrated preparation super math and special mathematics, in turn, assures that he has never felt the weight of stereotypes. When he was little, his father made him read his math tables with the same seriousness as his older brother. “When you get past your undergraduate degree and get into an extra course, you know why you’re there and what you’re getting into. These are more competitive environments, you need to have a strong character. Of course, you won’t get there if you dwell on the notes,” she explains. On the contrary, Marie explains, it “grows” her. “Generations are changing, girls are studying and there is a desire to succeed professionally,” she continues.

“While we focus on innovation, artificial intelligence and Big Data, the human pool is no longer sufficient”

Veronica Shaw

But one fact remains: there are very few girls in the soup course. Thus, many unions are getting creative in their attempt at federation. “As we focus on innovation, artificial intelligence and Big Data, the pool of men is no longer sufficient to ensure the future of science-related professions,” said Véronique Chauveau, president of the association. Women and Mathematicswhich increases initiatives in France.

On March 10, he and Animaths organized a debate day on the campus of the INSA engineering school in Valenciennes. That day, in the heart of a large amphitheater, a hundred young girls from colleges and high schools came to attend the performance. coded, an interactive creation, tells the story of a teenager who loves math but can’t keep up as he nears his bachelor’s degree. “Do you also like mathematics?”, then he took the actress to the party.

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